Mr. Wright is well known for his previous books and his contributions to virtually every literary journal of importance. His numerous honors include a Fullbright fellowship, a Kenyon Review fellowship, and many other prizes and awards.
About the Author
JAMES WRIGHT was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, in 1927. He was well known for his translations of such Spanish poets as Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo and for his poems about the Midwest. He received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972 for his Collected Poems. Other books of his published by Wesleyan are Saint Judas, Shall We Gather at the River, and Above the River: The Complete Poems (co published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux). James Wright died on March 26, 1980, at the age of 52.
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AS I STEP OVER A PUDDLE AT THE END OF WINTER, I THINK OF AN ANCIENT CHINESE GOVERNOR
And how can I, born in evil days And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?
— Written A.D. 819
Po Chu-i, balding old politician,
What's the use?
I think of you,
Uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-Tze,
When you were being towed up the rapids Toward some political job or other In the city of Chungshou.
You made it, I guess,
But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis Build me my own black twilight Of bamboo ropes and waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness Of the Midwest? Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope For a thousand years?
GOODBYE TO THE POETRY OF CALCIUM
Dark cypresses —
The world is uneasily happy:
It will all be forgotten.
— THEODOR STORM
Mother of roots, you have not seeded The tall ashes of loneliness For me. Therefore,
Now I go.
If I knew the name,
Your name, all trellises of vineyards and old fire Would quicken to shake terribly my Earth, mother of spiralling searches, terrible Fable of calcium, girl. I crept this afternoon In weeds once more,
Casual, daydreaming you might not strike Me down. Mother of window sills and journeys,
Hallower of scratching hands,
The sight of my blind man makes me want to weep.
Tiller of waves or whatever, woman or man,
Mother of roots or father of diamonds,
Look: I am nothing.
I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.
IN FEAR OF HARVESTS
It has happened Before: nearby,
The nostrils of slow horses Breathe evenly,
And the brown bees drag their high garlands,
Toward hives of snow.
THREE STANZAS FROM GOETHE
That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.
Oh, who will heal the sufferings Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing But hatred of men from love's abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.
Oh Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds From the thousand fountains So near him, dying of thirst In his own desert.
(NOTE: These three stanzas are from Goethe's poem "Harzreise im Winter." They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the text for his "Alto Rhapsody" of 1869.)
AUTUMN BEGINS IN MARTINS FERRY, OHIO
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
LYING IN A HAMMOCK AT WILLIAM DUFFY'S FARM IN PINE ISLAND, MINNESOTA
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
There is this cave In the air behind my body That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.
IN THE FACE OF HATRED
I am frightened by the sorrow Of escaping animals.
The snake moves slowly Beyond his horizon of yellow stone.
A great harvest of convicts has shaken loose And hurries across the wall of your eyes.
Most of them, all moving alike,
Are gone already along the river.
Only two boys,
Trailed by shadows of rooted police,
Turn aimlessly in the lashing elderberries.
One cries for his father's death,
And the other, the silent one,
Listens into the hallway Of a dark leaf.
FEAR IS WHAT QUICKENS ME
Many animals that our fathers killed in America Had quick eyes.
They stared about wildly,
When the moon went dark.
The new moon falls into the freight yards Of cities in the south,
But the loss of the moon to the dark hands of Chicago Does not matter to the deer In this northern field.
What is that tall woman doing There, in the trees?
I can hear rabbits and mourning doves whispering together In the dark grass, there Under the trees.
I look about wildly.
A MESSAGE HIDDEN IN AN EMPTY WINE BOTTLE THAT I THREW INTO A GULLY OF MAPLE TREES ONE NIGHT AT AN INDECENT HOUR
Women are dancing around a fire By a pond of creosote and waste water from the river In the dank fog of Ohio.
They are dead.
I am alone here,
And I reach for the moon that dangles Cold on a dark vine.
The unwashed shadows Of blast furnaces from Moundsville, West Virginia,
Are sneaking across the pits of strip mines To steal grapes In heaven.
Nobody else knows I am here.
Come out, come out, I am dying.
I am growing old.
An owl rises From the cutter bar Of a hayrake.
STAGES ON A JOURNEY WESTWARD
I began in Ohio.
I still dream of home.
Near Mansfield, enormous dobbins enter dark barns in autumn,
Where they can be lazy, where they can munch little apples,
Or sleep long.
But by night now, in the bread lines my father Prowls, I cannot find him: So far off,
1500 miles or so away, and yet I can hardy sleep.
In a blue rag the old man limps to my bed,
Leading a blind horse Of gentleness.
In 1932, grimy with machinery, he sang me A lullaby of a goosegirl.
Outside the house, the slag heaps waited.
In western Minnesota, just now,
I slept again.
In my dream, I crouched over a fire.
The only human beings between me and the Pacific Ocean Were old Indians, who wanted to kill me.
They squat and stare for hours into small fires Far off in the mountains.
The blades of their hatchets are dirty with the grease Of huge, silent buffaloes.
It is dawn.
I am shivering,
Even beneath a huge eiderdown.
I came in last night, drunk,
And left the oil stove cold.
I listen a long time, now, to the flurries.
Snow howls all around me, out of the abandoned prairies.
It sounds like the voices of bums and gamblers,
Rattling through the bare nineteenth-century whorehouses In Nevada.
Defeated for re-election,
The half-educated sheriff of Mukilteo, Washington,
Has been drinking again.
He leads me up the cliff, tottering.
Both drunk, we stand among the graves.
Miners paused here on the way up to Alaska.
Angry, they spaded their broken women's bodies Into ditches of crab grass.
I lie down between tombstones.
At the bottom of the cliff America is over and done with.
Plunged into the dark furrows Of the sea again.
HOW MY FEVER LEFT
I can still hear her.
She hobbles downstairs to the kitchen.
She is swearing at the dishes.
She slaps her grease rags Into a basket,
And slings it over her skinny forearm, crooked With hatred, and stomps outside.
I can hear my father downstairs,
Standing without a coat in the open back door,
Calling to the old bat across the snow.
She's forgotten her black shawl,
But I see her through my window, sneering,
Flapping upward Toward some dark church on the hill.
She has to meet somebody else, and It's no use, she won't listen,
The police are probing tonight for the bodies Of children in the black waters Of the suburbs.
Below the chemical riffles of the Ohio River,
Grappling hooks Drag delicately about, between skiff hulks and sand shoals,
Until they clasp Fingers.
Somewhere in a vein of Bridgeport, Ohio;
Deep in a coal hill behind Hanna's name;
Below the tipples, and dark as a drowsy woodchuck;
A man, alone,
Stumbles upon the outside locks of a grave, whispering
Oh let me in.
Many American women mount long stairs In the shafts of houses,
Fall asleep, and emerge suddenly into tottering palaces.
White mares lashed to the sulky carriages Trot softly Around the dismantled fairgrounds Near Buckeye Lake.
The sandstone blocks of a wellspring Cool dark green moss.
The sun floats down, a small golden lemon dissolves In the water.
I dream, as I lean over the edge, of a crawdad's mouth.
The cellars of haunted houses are like ancient cities,
Fallen behind a big heap of apples.
A widow on a front porch puckers her lips And whispers.
TWO POEMS ABOUT PRESIDENT HARDING
ONE: His Death
In Marion, the honey locust trees are falling.
Everybody in town remembers the white hair,
The campaign of a lost summer, the front porch Open to the public, and the vaguely stunned smile Of a lucky man.
"Neighbor, I want to be helpful," he said once.
Later, "You think I'm honest, don't you?"
I am drunk this evening in 1961,
In a jag for my countryman,
Who died of crab meat on the way back from Alaska.
Everyone knows that joke.
How many honey locusts have fallen,
Pitched rootlong into the open graves of strip mines,
Since the First World War ended And Wilson the gaunt deacon jogged sullenly Into silence?
The cancerous ghosts of old con men Shed their leaves.
For a proud man,
Lost between the turnpike near Cleveland And the chiropractors' signs looming among dead mulberry trees,
There is no place left to go But home.
"Warren lacks mentality," one of his friends said.
Yet he was beautiful, he was the snowfall Turned to white stallions standing still Under dark elm trees.
He died in public. He claimed the secret right To be ashamed.
TWO: His Tomb in Ohio
"... he died of a busted gut."
-MENCKEN, on BRYAN.
A hundred slag piles north of us,
At the mercy of the moon and rain,
He lies in his ridiculous Tomb, our fellow citizen.
No, I have never seen that place,
Where many shadows of faceless thieves Chuckle and stumble and embrace On beer cans, stogie butts, and graves.
One holiday, one rainy week After the country fell apart,
Hoover and Coolidge came to speak And snivel about his broken heart.
His grave, a huge absurdity,
Embarrassed cops and visitors.
Hoover and Coolidge crept away By night, and women closed their doors.
Now junkmen call their children in Before they catch their death of cold;
Young lovers let the moon begin Its quick spring; and the day grows old;
The mean one-legger who rakes up leaves Has chased the loafers out of the park;
Minnegan Leonard half-believes In God, and the poolroom goes dark;
America goes on, goes on Laughing, and Harding was a fool.
Even his big pretentious stone Lays him bare to ridicule.
I know it. But don't look at me.
By God, I didn't start this mess.
Whatever moon and rain may be,
The hearts of men are merciless.
EISENHOWER'S VISIT TO FRANCO, 1959
"... we die of cold, and not of darkness."
The American hero must triumph over The forces of darkness.
He has flown through the very light of heaven And come down in the slow dusk Of Spain.
Franco stands in a shining circle of police.
His arms open in welcome.
He promises all dark things Will be hunted down.
State police yawn in the prisons.
Antonio Machado follows the moon Down a road of white dust,
To a cave of silent children Under the Pyrenees.
Wine darkens in stone jars in villages.
Wine sleeps in the mouths of old men, it is a dark red color.
Smiles glitter in Madrid.
Eisenhower has touched hands with Franco, embracing In a glare of photographers.
Clean new bombers from America muffle their engines And glide down now.
Their wings shine in the searchlights Of bare fields,
IN MEMORY OF A SPANISH POET
Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me.
— MIGUEL HERNANDEZ,
written in prison, 1942.
I see you strangling Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.
Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.
I dream of your slow voice, flying,
Planting the dark waters of the spirit With lutes and seeds.
Here, in the American Midwest,
Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange
heaven of my skull.
They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,
A greeting to my country.
Now twilight gathers,
A long sundown.
Silos creep away toward the west.
THE UNDERMINING OF THE DEFENSE ECONOMY
Stairway, face, window,
Mottled animals Running over the public buildings.
Maple and elm.
In the autumn Of early evening,
A pumpkin Lies on its side,
Turning yellow as the face Of a discharged general.
It's no use complaining, the economy Is going to hell with all these radical Changes,
Girls the color of butterflies That can't be sold.
Only after nightfall,
Little boys lie still, awake,
Delicate little boxes of dust.
The big stones of the cistern behind the barn Are soaked in whitewash.
My grandmother's face is a small maple leaf Pressed in a secret box.
Locusts are climbing down into the dark green crevices Of my childhood. Latches click softly in the trees. Your hair
The arbors of the cities are withered.
Far off, the shopping centers empty and darken.
A red shadow of steel mills.
I slouch in bed.
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women Sorting slate from anthracite Between railroad ties:
The yellow-bearded winter of the depression Is still alive somewhere, an old man Counting his collection of bottle caps In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees Of my grave.
I still feel half drunk,
And all those old women beyond my window Are hunching toward the graveyard.
Drunk, mumbling Hungarian,
The sun staggers in,
And his big stupid face pitches Into the stove.
For two hours I have been dreaming Of green butterflies searching for diamonds In coal seams;
And children chasing each other for a game Through the hills of fresh graves.
But the sun has come home drunk from the sea,
And a sparrow outside Sings of the Hanna Coal Co. and the dead moon.
The filaments of cold light bulbs tremble In music like delicate birds.
Ah, turn it off.
NUMBER TWO: I TRY TO WAKEN AND GREET THE WORLD ONCE AGAIN
In a pine tree,
A few yards away from my window sill,
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see him abandon himself To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do That the branch will not break.
DEPRESSED BY A BOOK OF BAD POETRY, I WALK TOWARD AN UNUSED PASTURE AND INVITE THE INSECTS TO JOIN ME
Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment, and listen.
The old grasshoppers Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins In the maple trees.
TWO HORSES PLAYING IN THE ORCHARD
Too soon, too soon, a man will come To lock the gate, and drive them home.
Then, neighing softly through the night,
The mare will nurse her shoulder bite.
Now, lightly fair, through lock and mane She gazes over the dusk again,
And sees her darkening stallion leap In grass for apples, half asleep.
Lightly, lightly, on slender knees He turns, lost in a dream of trees.
Apples are slow to find this day,
Someone has stolen the best away.
Still, some remain before the snow,
A few, trembling on boughs so low A horse can reach them, small and sweet:
And some are tumbling to her feet.
Too scon, a man will scatter them,
Although I do not know his name,
His age, or how he came to own A horse, an apple tree, a stone.
I let those horses in to steal On principle, because I feel Like half a horse myself, although Too soon, too soon, already. Now.
BY A LAKE IN MINNESOTA
Upshore from the cloud —
The slow whale of country twilight —
The spume of light falls into valleys Full of roses.
Out of the placid waters,
Two beavers, mother and child,
Wave out long ripples To the dust of dead leaves On the shore.
And the moon walks,
Hunting for hidden dolphins Behind the darkening combers Of the ground.
And downshore from the cloud,
I stand, waiting For dark.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon's young, trying Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe Or move.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.
Excerpted from "The Branch Will Not Break"
Copyright © 1963 James Wright.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
AS I STEP OVER A PUDDLE AT THE END OF WINTER, I THINK OF AN ANCIENT CHINESE,
GOODBYE TO THE POETRY OF CALCIUM,
IN FEAR OF HARVESTS,
THREE STANZAS FROM GOETHE,
AUTUMN BEGINS IN MARTINS FERRY, OHIO,
LYING IN A HAMMOCK AT WILLIAM DUFFY'S FARM IN PINE ISLAND, MINNESOTA,
IN THE FACE OF HATRED,
FEAR IS WHAT QUICKENS ME,
A MESSAGE HIDDEN IN AN EMPTY WINE BOTTLE THAT I THREW INTO A GULLY OF MAPLE,
TREES ONE NIGHT AT AN INDECENT HOUR,
STAGES ON A JOURNEY WESTWARD,
HOW MY FEVER LEFT,
TWO POEMS ABOUT PRESIDENT HARDING,
EISENHOWER'S VISIT TO FRANCO, 1959,
IN MEMORY OF A SPANISH POET,
THE UNDERMINING OF THE DEFENSE ECONOMY,
DEPRESSED BY A BOOK OF BAD POETRY, I WALK TOWARD AN UNUSED PASTURE AND INVITE,
THE INSECTS TO JOIN ME,
TWO HORSES PLAYING IN THE ORCHARD,
BY A LAKE IN MINNESOTA,
FROM A BUS WINDOW IN CENTRAL OHIO, JUST BEFORE A THUNDER SHOWER,
TRYING TO PRAY,
TWO SPRING CHARMS,
ARRIVING IN THE COUNTRY AGAIN,
IN THE COLD HOUSE,
SNOWSTORM IN THE MIDWEST,
HAVING LOST MY SONS, I CONFRONT THE WRECKAGE OF THE MOON: CHRISTMAS, 1960,
A PRAYER TO ESCAPE FROM THE MARKET PLACE,
TODAY I WAS HAPPY, SO I MADE THIS POEM,
TO THE EVENING STAR: CENTRAL MINNESOTA,
I WAS AFRAID OF DYING,
A DREAM OF BURIAL,